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France Goes to Hollande

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PARIS – France has now conducted its ninth presidential election under direct universal suffrage. And, for the first time in 17 years, after three consecutive defeats, the left – embodied in the Socialist candidate, François Hollande – will return to Élysée Palace. Indeed, the first implication of this unquestionably significant election is that it confirms a return to stability.

France is the largest country in Europe to have so much trouble finding its balance. Its revolution in 1789 initiated a long period of profound instability, featuring two empires, three monarchies, and five republics. The French have gone through 13 constitutions in less than 200 years.

At 54 years old, the current Fifth Republic is the second longest-lasting regime since the revolution. At times, there has been talk of a Sixth Republic, which would address limited but real concerns and difficulties. But voter turnout in the latest presidential election (80% in the first round, and 81% in the second round) leaves no doubt: our current system is strong, and we French are attached to it.

But the primary importance of the election result is the left’s return to power for only the second time in 31 years. In fact, when François Mitterand was elected in 1981, the left had been out of power since 1957.

Back then, the Communist Party was still powerful, and maintained close ties with the Soviet Union. The prospect that the Party could come to power in an electoral alliance with the Socialists struck fear in opponents. The Socialists, for their part, had not yet shed their intellectual skin. Mitterand’s political program was a hymn to economic planning, and the free market was still, for him, synonymous with oppression.

Today, there is no longer international communism, or, for that matter, French communism. We remember having seen the left govern without drama. Its two passages to power – ten years under Mitterand and five years with Prime Minister Lionel Jospin – forced the left to reconcile with reality. France’s international reputation was not damaged, and, at home, the left’s performance, especially concerning unemployment, compared well with that of other governments.

So, there will be no panic this time. On the contrary, the left’s return to power appears to be an entirely normal, almost trivial, example of alternation in government.

In fact, Hollande’s victory was underpinned not by a leftward shift among the electorate, but by voters’ rejection of Nicolas Sarkozy. Indeed, the result represents a stunning and historic defeat: during the Fifth Republic, three sitting presidents – Charles de Gaulle, Mitterrand, and Jacques Chirac – have been reelected after their first term in office. Only Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, weakened by the long decline of Gaullism, was not.

The rejection of Sarkozy is very different; above all, it is a matter of style. There remains a type of royalism among the French, and our constitution has many features of an elective monarchy. With his over-familiarity, simplicity, and occasional vulgarity, Sarkozy undermined the dignity of his sacred function. This was not forgiven, and was judged more severely than the shortcomings of his presidential record, which was not significantly worse than that of his predecessors.

Moreover, in substantive terms, Sarkozy’s tax policies, in particular, favored the upper classes and the wealthy. So a powerful combination of social and economic anger emerged, particularly given the perception that the excessive greed of financiers and bankers was the primary cause of the crisis that erupted in 2008, and that still menaces us today. A social and political correction was necessary, and it has occurred with a vengeance unique to France.

But the state’s coffers are dangerously depleted, and France now finds itself among the many countries whose debt burden compromises the eurozone’s existence. Thus, it is now subject to the discourse of economic orthodoxy, which, in insisting that all debts be paid to the penny, ignores that public spending is also an engine of growth. Just how much will actually have to be repaid? With Germany as the primary exponent of orthodoxy, the debate has raged on.

But now we see that austerity has plunged Greece, Portugal, and especially Spain and Italy deeply into recession. The president of the European Central Bank, as well as the International Monetary Fund, acknowledge the gravity of the problem. But what happens if we refuse to accept Germany’s position?

The victory of Hollande, who has said that he wants to “renegotiate” the European Union’s new, German-backed “fiscal compact,” will weigh heavily in this debate. Furthermore, the Socialists now control not only the presidency and the government, but also a majority in the Senate, all of the regional presidencies, 55% of the country’s departments, and most major cities’ town halls. In less than two months, they may control a majority of the National Assembly as well, implying a concentration of power that has never before been seen in modern France.

The Socialists can govern without limits, so it is up to them to govern well. It is this uncertainty that hovers over the future of France, if not that of Europe.

Michel Rocard is a former prime minister of France and a former leader of the Socialist Party.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2012.

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